During the month of September, we are looking at the issue of civility, or more directly, how to live out our Christian faith in an uncivil world.
Over the next four weeks, I will be looking at the early Christian movement, the apostolic church, as recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. Today we’ll do an overview of the entire twenty-eight chapters, then decide how we wish to write chapter twenty-nine.
Here’s the question we need to ask throughout: what was their passion? Why did they do what they did?
No movement is successful without a passion, a galvanizing, catalytic purpose which drives and motivates us. Light diffused is a bulb—focused, it’s a laser. What was their passion? What should ours be?
Drawing the blueprint
In Matthew 16, Jesus said, “I will build my church” (v.18). The book of Acts tells us how he did it, and is still doing it today.
The Master Carpenter knows that a building has three requirements: an excellent blueprint, a strong foundation, and an effective structure. So Jesus first draws the blueprint in his last words on earth: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). You know them well.
The purpose of the church is clear: “You will be my witnesses.” We “will be” his witnesses—this is not optional. This is our reason for being.
The people is clear: all believers. “You” is plural—not just Peter or James or John; there is no clergy in the book of Acts. This is the life purpose of each Christian.
The power is clear: the Holy Spirit enables God’s people to fulfil his purpose. We cannot convict of sin or save souls. We can only share our witness, trusting the Spirit to use us to bring others to Jesus.
The priority is clear: we begin where we are. They started in Jerusalem because they were in Jerusalem, then moved to Judea, Samaria, and the “ends of the earth.” We plant the seed where we’re standing. We begin with the people we know, then take Christ to our city and world.
In a biography of Alexander the Great, the writer describes the panic felt by the Greek army when Alexander died. They discovered that they had marched off their maps, and had no idea where they were or where to go.
This will never happen to us. Here Jesus gives his followers a map we’ll never march off of—a blueprint we will use until the end of time. It is so simple that any Christian can understand it, and so challenging that we must never think we are finished.
Laying the foundation (1:8–8:1)
Now, blueprint in hand, Jesus begins to lay the foundation. First he settles the leadership of the church to replace Judas: “they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias, so he was added to the eleven apostles” (1:26).
Then he empowers his church by his Spirit. We’ll study this event in detail next week, and see how it can happen to us today.
The Spirit falls on the day of Pentecost: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4). The Spirit empowers them for personal evangelism: “And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (2.8); “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (2:11).
The Spirit empowers Peter for public proclamation, with the result: “Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (2:41).
The Spirit empowers Peter and John for personal ministry with the crippled man outside the Temple: “And leaping up, he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God” (3:8).
The Spirit empowered the first Christians with bold courage: “Let it be known to all of you and to the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well…when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (4:10, 13).
The result for the entire church: “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (4:31). Then the Spirit expands the church:
The Spirit purifies God’s church from the deceit and corruption of Ananias and Sapphira (5.1–10) and “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (v. 11).
He grows their numbers: “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (5:14).
He empowers their witness: “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him’” (5:29–32).
And he gives them great joy even in suffering: “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (5:41–42).
The Spirit gives the church more servant leaders, the first deacons. Here’s the result: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7). Things are going extremely well in Jerusalem, reaching even the priests for Christ.
But there’s a problem: they’re still in Jerusalem. This fledgling Christian movement was called to start in Jerusalem, but not to stay there. So far they’ve done nothing in Judea, Samaria, not to speak of the “ends of the earth.” They’re doing well where they are, and are apparently quite content to stay there.
Whenever we’re unclear about our mission mandate and purpose, God clarifies things very quickly. I’ve heard it said, “God deals with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must.
And so he must use Stephen’s martyrdom and its result in the early church: “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (8:1). Acts 1:8 is fulfilled through Acts 8:1.
Building the church (8:1–28:31)
Now Christianity becomes the first universal faith in human history, transcending local religions and local gods to reach across the globe and across the centuries to you and me today.
We can chart its growth by key statements of the movement’s progress and success. First they expand geographically to Judea, Samaria, and Galilee (8:1–9:31).
Philip evangelizes the hated Samaritans as the first “foreign” missionary, and “the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did” (8:6).
Then Philip reaches the Ethiopian eunuch, the national treasurer of his country (the Jerome Powell of his day): “And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him” (8:38).
The gospel moves north to Damascus and Syria through Saul’s conversion: “For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (9:19–20).
Here’s the result of this expansion: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (9:31).
Next they move racially across the most dangerous barrier of all: the Gentile world.
Remember that the Jewish people had been taught that God only made Gentiles so there would be fuel for the fires of hell.
Now Peter preaches the good news to Cornelius, a Gentile and, even worse, an officer in the Roman army which occupied and oppressed Israel. Here’s the result: “Then Peter declared, ‘Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’” (10:46–47), an astounding admission for a Jewish man to make.
Next, “There were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord” (11:20–21).
Here’s the result of this expansion: “The word of God increased and multiplied” (12:24).
And now the gospel moves to the larger world, in three separate missionary journeys, the first in religious history.
Paul and Barnabas sail to the island of Cyprus, and “then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord” (13:12).
Then on to Asia, mainland Turkey today. At the town of Pisidian Antioch, the Gentiles “began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (13:48-49).
Next to Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas “entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed” (14:1).
But things were not always easy. At Lystra, “Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe” (14:19–20).
At Derbe: “When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch” (14:21).
In chapter 15, the church back at Jerusalem, still the headquarters of the Christian movement, affirms their ministry to the Gentiles. Here’s the summary statement: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (16:5).
On their second journey, God calls Paul further west, to Greece and Europe (15:41–18:.22). In Philippi they win Lydia, then the jailer (chapter 16). In Thessalonica, “some of them [Jews] were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (17:4).
At Berea, my favorite church in the New Testament: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” (17:11–12).
Even at Athens, capital of the skeptical philosophies of the day, “some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (17:34).
In Corinth, the synagogue ruler and his entire family believed, and “many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (18:8). So, Paul “stayed a year and six months teaching the word of God among them: (8:11). From there to Ephesus, then back to Jerusalem.
During the third journey, Paul revisits these churches (18:23–21:17). Note this result in Ephesus: “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks…many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (19:10, 18–20).
And from here through Greece and back to Jerusalem.
Finally, the gospel moves to Rome, the “uttermost parts of the earth” (21:26–28:31). Paul witnesses to the crowd (22:1–21), to the Sanhedrin (22:30–23:11), to Governors Felix (chapter 24) and Festus (25:1–21), and to King Agrippa (25:26–26:32).
Finally he is taken to Rome, with this result: “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:30–31).
Here’s the point: the plan worked. A tiny movement in far-off Jerusalem has now spread across the known world to Rome herself. My friends, God will do with us what he did with them, if we will make their passion ours.
So, what was their passion? Why did they do it? Why give their lives for this?
Why would Peter preach to the very men who crucified Jesus knowing full well that they possessed the same authority to crucify him as well?
Why would Philip witness to the despised Samaritans?
Why would Paul, the zealous Pharisee, give his life for the Gentiles? Thrown into prison shackles, beaten and whipped, pummeled unconscious with stones, shipwrecked, finally beheaded—why?
Because of their passion for the lost? For evangelism and missions?
At one time I would have said that, but then a conversation I had with a staff minister about his family changed my mind. He doesn’t have a passion for talking about them, but he has a passion for them. That’s why he talks about them—because he loves them. That’s true about Jesus as well.
The apostolic Christians’ passion was for Jesus. They loved him so much they couldn’t help loving those he loves. And they wanted others to love him, too.
I used to say that my heart’s desire is to know Christ and make him known. I now believe that statement needs to be changed to love him and love others to him.
Then we fulfill the two great commandments. Then we make his passion ours.
Then we find the “one thing” which makes life meaningful.
How do we develop this passion? We’ll say much more about this in the coming sermons, but for today let’s focus on these simple keys: worship him and serve others.
The more we worship Jesus, personally and with others, the more we love him. And the more we love him, the more we want to worship him.
Mother Teresa, when asked how she found the strength for her work, said, “Spend one hour adoring Jesus, and you’ll have all the energy you need.” She was right.
And we love others through service. A kind word, deed, letter, phone call. Praying for a lost person. Sharing the gospel with them.
And if we don’t feel love, act as if we do. Counselors say it’s better to act ourselves into feelings than to feel our way into actions. If you don’t feel love for a person, spend some time worshiping Jesus and he will warm your heart. If you don’t feel close to Jesus, love someone in his name and you will.
As we develop their passion for Jesus and others, we write Acts 29 today.